Detroit Wolverines

From BR Bullpen

Franchise Record: 426-437-15 .494

Post Season Record: 10-5 .667

National League Pennant: 1887

Pre-World Series title: 1887

Ballpark: Recreation Park (1881-88)

The Detroit Wolverines were a 19th century baseball team who were members of the National League between 1881 and 1888. The Wolverines were one of the first, if not the first team to be owned by a sitting mayor, William Thompson (1880-83). At the time of their formation, the team was the second professional team in Detroit; the first team was formed back in 1879, and lasted only half a season before folding, mostly likely due to financial problems.

The Wolverines joined the National League on December 8, 1880 replacing the Cincinnati Red Stockings who had been dropped from the league about 2 months prior. Team opened the season, at their home, Recreation Park, on May 2nd a 6-5 loss to the Buffalo Bisons. Managed by Frank Bancroft the team posted a 41-43 record. The following year the team posted their first winning season goin 42-41-3. Prior to the start of the 1883 season, Mayor Thompson sold the team to a businessman, Joseph Marsh, and Bancroft left the team to manage the Cleveland Forest Citys. Under manager Jack Chapman, the team won only 40 games and then a team worst 28 wins in 1884. During the off-season, the owners of the Wolverines contemplated dropping out. As a possible replacement, the league looked to replace them with the Cincinnati Outlaw Reds. However, the team was sold to Frederick Stearns who decided the team would remain in the league.

In the meantime, Chapman had been replaced as manager by Charlie Morton, but lasted only 38 games. Morton was replaced by Bill Watkins, who had until June 15th, was the manager of the Indianapolis Hoosiers in the Western League. Under Watkins, the team won 34 of its last 70 games. During the off season, the Buffalo Bisons dropped out of the league, with Stearns picking up four players (Dan Brouthers, Hardy Richardson, Jack Row and Deacon White) from the team. The next season saw the Wolverines more than double their win total to 87 wins. The team’s performance declined slightly in 1887, down to 79 wins. But it was enough to get the pennant. In the post season, the Wolverines would be facing the St. Louis Browns, winners of three straight American Association pennants, and defending World Champions.

This year’s post season championship series was different than previous seasons. For the first time, as well as the only time, many of the games between the two teams would take place in cities other than the two cities from which respective league champions were from. Wolverines’ owner Frederick Stearns, who was eager to take advantage of his gate-drawing team, proposed to the Browns’ owner, Chris von der Ahe, which the 2 clubs should participate in a 15-game post season with the two teams playing in almost every major league city. In addition, admission would be increased to $1.00 and the use of 2 umpires, a first in the series. The umpires chosen were both named Honest John. One was "Honest John" Kelly and the other "Honest John" Gaffney. The series opened in St. Louis, as the Browns had the better record. Both teams won a game in St. Louis. Game 3 was in Detroit with the Wolverines winning in 13 innings. By Game 8, the series was essentially over. However the two teams kept playing. At the last game, only 659 showed up for a 9-2 Browns’ win. The Wolverines won 10 out of the 15. They swept the Browns in Detroit, and Philadelphia, while the Browns swept in Brooklyn and took 2 out of 3 in St. Louis.

The 1888 season, which ended up being the Wolverines’ last season, finds the team winning only 68 games. After 94 games, Bill Watkins is replaced by Bob Leadley. After the season, Detroit drops out of the league. Many sports writers and fans felt that the owners let them down by disbanding the team. Between 1889 and 1894, there were three minor league teams who used the Wolverines nickname. The last team to use the Wolverines name is now known as the Detroit Tigers. The Wolverines nickname would make one last appearance in 1928, when a NFL team used the name for that season.


  • Jerry Lansche: Glory Fades Away: The Nineteenth-Century World Series Rediscovered, Taylor Publishing, Dallas, Texas, 1991: pp. 95–125.
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  • Detroit Blog
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